LabTechnologist.com brings you an exclusive interview with Robert Forster, General Manager of Nikon UK's Instrument Division.
90 years ago, on 25 July 1917, three of Japan's leading optical manufacturers merged to form a fully integrated optics manufacturer known as Nippon Kogaku K.K. The company produced its first microscope, the Joico, in 1925 and released its first camera, the Nikon I in 1948.
Due to the success of the Nikon brand name, the company changed its name to Nikon Corporation in 1988.
Nikon had net sales of JPY 822,813m (€5.17bn) in the year to March 2007 and has over 22,000 employees.
The company is perhaps best known for its cameras, lenses and consumer optical products, but it is also one of the world's top producers of photolithography steppers, equipment used in the manufacture of semiconductor wafers and LCD panels.
"Nikon has three principal operating companies within the corporation: Nikon Imaging, which manufacture consumer products; Nikon Precision which produce photolithography systems for the semiconductor industry; and Nikon Instruments which delivers microscopy-based imaging and monitoring systems, metrology inspection systems and semiconductor IC inspection systems," said Forster.
"There is also a fourth area of our business known as the customised and special products division."
What are the company's major product areas?
The largest area of the business is Nikon Imaging, which sells our world-renowned digital SLR (single lens reflex) cameras, lenses, binoculars and spotting scopes. This division accounted for just over half the company's sales last year.
The Nikon Precision division is one of the leading companies in manufacturing photolithography systems for the semiconductor industry, and accounted for 36 per cent of the company's 2006 revenues.
Nikon's Instrument business has been manufacturing microscopy systems for over 80 years and is one of the four major light microscope manufacturers in the world. The Instrument Division was responsible for about 8 per cent of the company's total revenues last year, bringing in JPY 61bn (€387m).
What are Nikon Instruments leading product lines?
In terms of Bioscience research, our inverted microscope systems and high performance optical additions, such as laser scanning confocals and advanced fluorescence imaging equipment, are very important products. These are commonly used for studying living cells or organisms cultured in flasks or dishes. This enables researchers to observe the complex phenomena that occur in living cells with minimal disruption.
Digital telepathology solutions are one of our great strengths. Nikon has a complete range of systems that capture diagnostic quality digital images of samples, which can then be observed on a network or the web anywhere around the world, regardless of where the image was taken. The Coolscope, an all-in-one package incorporating a microscope and digital camera with web server capabilities, even allows the user to take control of the microscope from a remote location.
The advantage is that pathologists can easily consult with colleagues and provide expertise without having to send slides or travel to another hospital. By storing the images electronically in databases, they can be accessed in a matter of minutes. I think this is a key area for any microscopy company's future development, hence the recent introduction of our NIS Nikon Elements suite of software.
Over the last five years we have been developing microscopy solutions for cell and developmental biology and continuously optimising our products. During this time we have developed a concept that we have termed 'Cellogy'.
This involves taking great care to look after the cells and keep them in an optimum environment so that they can be imaged in their natural living state. This is achieved by minimising photo damage and phototoxicity and reducing the stress on cells which can be attributed to fluctuations in temperature, gas, humidity and physical movement.
Our recently-launched Biostation range epitomises the concept as the cells are maintained in their optimum environment while they are imaged. By doing so, accurate time lapse studies can be significantly extended.
Often, when undertaking observations and studies into cells that are either injected or subjected to a chemical change, it becomes difficult to determine whether the cells are reacting because of the change induced chemically or whether it is a physical factor, such as the cells reacting to environmental changes
Simply exposing cells to light can lead to premature cell death. In the natural biological environment cells lying deep in the tissue are often protected from UV (ultra violet) but if the cells are cultured in vitro and subjected to white light, this may also include components of UV which can cause adverse affects.
Nikon is taking great care to develop culture-sympathetic imaging systems that help cells to stay alive longer, so that researchers will be able to study them for longer.
Nikon Instruments division also provides sub-micron capability metrology inspection systems that are used in the Quality Control (QC) of many industrial manufacturing processes. These work by precisely measuring the shape and dimensions of products. We also provide computer systems and defect review software that automatically checks the images to locate faults in the manufacturing process.
In addition, we provide similar systems for checking that integrated circuits (ICs) have been correctly manufactured; this part of the business links in closely with the photolithography products sold by our Precision Equipment division.
What sort of percentage sales growth has the company been seeing recently (during 2006 and the first half of 2007)?
As a whole Nikon's sales have grown in the period by over 12.5 per cent to JPY822, 813m (€5.17bn) with the Instrument company, globally, seeing 11.5 per cent growth.
Our bioscience research products have been a strong driver of growth as a result of the investment we have made in this key area.
We've been working closely with researchers to develop innovative technologies that provide complete system solutions and resolve a wide variety of problems for biological and material scientists.
A good example of this is time-lapse imaging of cells using an inverted microscope. The microscope focus will traditionally drift over time due to thermal changes or vibration.
This means that if you want to take an image you need to have someone sitting at the microscope just to focus the objective lens and capture the image - it hasn't been uncommon for scientists to sit in laboratories throughout the night to complete a time-lapse experiment over twelve hours.
Our development of the Perfect Focus System (PFS) removes that need by keeping the point of focus on the microscope slide using an infra red LED that continuously feeds back information regarding the position of the coverslip This ensures the sample is continuously locked into focus and has enabled cell biologists to achieve very high quality time lapse movies - over several days, without having to spend the entire night in the lab!
This technology has evolved even further into the Biostation family of products, which automates imaging to an unprecedented degree.
What is the balance between customers in Industry, Academia and Government?
From a European perspective, the Instrument division makes about half of its revenues from sales to academia, 20 per cent to industry and 30 per cent to government-run institutions.
In Asia sales to government are slightly lower but sales to industry are a little higher.
The reason we have secured such a high proportion of our sales to academia is because our products, to date, tend to be aimed at core fundamental research areas, rather than the high-throughput systems favoured by the pharmaceutical industry, for example.
Are you seeing a shift in the geographic distribution of your customers?
Our sales are distributed relatively equally between Europe, Asia and America.
This is changing somewhat with microelectronics market transferring to Asia, and we believe that medical device manufacturers will follow in time. Our academic base is still relatively stable. However, as Asia continues to increase its investment in academic research, our sales to that sector will also increase.
In the last few years Nikon has seen customers establish themselves in Eastern Europe, China and India in line with other industry trends.
What percentage of revenues is the company spending on R&D?
Nikon as a whole spent JPY47,217m (€300m) on R&D last year, that equates to 5.7 per cent of revenues and represents a healthy investment in the company's future.
The Instrument division invested JPY3,398m (€21m), representing 5.6 per cent of the division's revenues.
Can you tell us which areas major R&D investment is going into?
We constantly invest in R&D for further development of our optical systems, as well as into advancing our software and automation systems that enable customers to use our products more effectively and efficiently.
In addition, we invest in the core areas of expertise and developing novel products such as the Biostation family. Systems such as these are designed to increase the quality of research and make customers lives easier, often through the automation of key processes.
Does this represent a continuation of current strengths or a move into new areas?
R&D investment goes into both trying to maintain our core competitive advantages as well as trying to leverage our technologies into new application areas.
The Biostation is a great example of Nikon investing R&D into new application areas, taking some existing technology and methodology of optical and mechanical design and applying it to a specific application.
The trick is to do something that's not been done before and to remove as many of the variables that can damage research projects as possible.
Does the company look to move into new areas through in-house R&D, inward licensing, or by company acquisition… or a combination of these?
Historically Nikon has lent very heavily on leveraging revenue growth from its own intellectual property (IP). In future, most global companies will need to balance all three. However Japanese companies are historically conservative and very wary of acquisition.
When you design new instruments what sort of effort do you put into hardware and software upgradeability?
20 years ago, when microscopes were simply glass and brass, the life cycle would have been at least 15 years.
However, with the advances in electronics and automation resulting in the development of digitally controlled microscopes, the industry is now looking at a product cycle of 7 to 10 years. Due to the initial high capital cost of product development and reduction in lifespan, upgradeability has to be integral to the design.
A lot of energy has gone into the development of automation and digital control as well as the incorporation of digital cameras to allow customers to process and access images.
Currently, a microscope used by consultant grade pathologist, in a hospital setting, would need to be replaced every 7 to 10 years, and during the lifetime of this product there would be little need to make major updates to the hardware. On occasions, minor updates may be necessary, such as small design changes to the stage or condenser, or the addition of extra optical capabilities.
The big changes to the hardware are needed on the digital imaging side where the digital cameras require upgrading every 3 years.
Conversely, software upgradeability is essential and is achieved either by releasing new versions or plug-in modules. This allows the addition of extra functionality and the ability for specific changes to be pushed through in a matter of months if required.
The Biostation family is very different and has been designed specifically with upgradeability and modularity in mind. It has the ability to plug in additional functionality from both hardware and software modules over the course of the product's lifecycle.
For instance, right from the inception of the first Biostation, we designed it to be upgradeable to include fluorescence capabilities. There are other hardware packs under development planned for release that will increase the functionality of the instrument further still.
Where are the instrument parts manufactured and assembled?
We have a number of plants in Japan, in the Yokohama and Kurobane areas that produce our precision optics and high grade research instruments.
We also have plants in the Nanjing area in China, producing the simpler stereo microscopes that are used by students or in the inspection of microelectronics.
What sort of after sales service packages do you offer? And does the company help install and teach users how to run the instruments optimally?
We offer various service options that include extended warranties up to 5 years, standard service contracts and tailored service contracts.
We are able to accommodate the varied requirements of our customers. For example, a metrology instrument that conducts critical dimensional measurements will need to be calibrated as well as serviced, so we can include this as part of a service contract. As a result, not only will the instrument be serviced, but the optical alignment and software protocols will also be checked and calibrated.
Roughly how much of your installed base is supported by your own service staff and those of your authorised agents/distributors versus third party service firms?
A very high percentage of our customer support is carried out by our own staff. We always aim to work through our own support teams, as they've proven to be more involved than third parties.
In terms of sales, 90 per cent of our instruments are sold directly by Nikon. The exact percentage serviced by Nikon is hard to define as not everybody wants to take out a service contract, but we are always at hand to trouble shoot and answer queries, if required.
How much importance does the company put on building a relationship between specific engineers and support staff and individual customers?
We place a lot of importance on building relationships between our customers and our engineers as they are the 'post-sales face' of the company. Our engineers are specialised in each of the core industry functions, and have an in-depth knowledge of both the confocal microscopes, that form much of our biological business, and the metrology instruments, that comprise the industrial side.
Have you or third party contractors done any assessments of brand loyalty for your products? If so, can you give us any information about this?
We don't have any recent data on brand loyalty, but we really value peer group and third party recommendation, hence our total commitment to quality and service. A personal recommendation by a Professor to a colleague is worth its weight in gold and that will only come about if they've had great support from us - and that's what we aim for.